Ukraine Blocks Journalists From Front Lines With Escalating Censorship

After Ukrainian forces regained control of the port city of Kherson last November, following eight months of Russian occupation, some journalists entered the liberated city within hours. Without formal permission to be there, they documented the jubilant crowds welcoming soldiers with hugs and Ukrainian flags. Ukrainian officials, who tightly control press access to the front lines, responded by revoking the journalists’ press credentials, claiming that they had “ignored existing restrictions.” 

In the months since then, as Ukraine has sought to liberate more territory occupied by Russia, the Ukrainian government has intensified its efforts to control the narrative of the war by tightening journalists’ access to the conflict. “After that, things started getting worse. … They have tried to place more control on journalists,” Katerina Sergatskova, editor-in-chief of Zaborona Media, an independent Ukrainian publication, told The Intercept. “Now it’s really hard to make reports from Kherson, for example.”

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion last year, Ukrainian authorities have threatened, revoked, or denied press credentials of journalists working for half a dozen Ukrainian and foreign news outlets because of their coverage, the news outlet Semafor reported earlier this month. In one recent example, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense did not renew the press credentials of a Ukraine-based photographer who accused the country’s security services of subjecting him to interrogations, a lie detector test, and accusations that he was working against Ukraine’s “national interest.” Government officials restored Anton Skyba’s accreditation last week, following a pressure campaign by colleagues and press freedom advocates, who have been denouncing tightening restrictions on media access to the front lines. But the episode put a spotlight on tensions between Ukrainian authorities and the journalists covering the conflict that have quietly escalated in recent months. Veteran war correspondents, for their part, are accusing Ukrainian officials of making reporting on the reality of the war, with rare exceptions, nearly impossible.

“The Ukrainian government has made it virtually impossible for journalists to do real front line reportage.”

“I’ve covered four wars, and I’ve never seen such a chasm between the drama and intensity and historic import of the reality of the conflict on the one hand, and the superficiality and meagerness of its documentation by the press on the other,” Luke Mogelson, a contributing writer for the New Yorker, told The Intercept. “It’s wild how little of what’s happening is being chronicled. And the main reason, though not the only one, is that the Ukrainian government has made it virtually impossible for journalists to do real front line reportage.”

Mogelson added that the restrictions come from military and political brass and run counter to rank-and-file soldiers’ desire to share their experiences. “The guys who are actually out doing the killing and dying and enduring the misery of the front are almost always thrilled to have journalists witness what they’re going through,” he added. “It’s not just politically or ethically problematic for Ukraine to prevent journalists from seeing the war. It’s also quite cruel to the Ukrainian men who are being forced to conduct it in total silence and obscurity.” 

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, which issues press accreditation and controls journalists’ access to the front lines, did not respond to The Intercept’s questions.

Some Ukrainian journalists have also warned that military handlers’ tight oversight of journalists is skewing coverage of the war. “If a soldier tells me, ‘I hate this war so much,’ the press officer asks him to reply, ‘Yes, the war is hard, but we are keeping our spirits up,’” Skyba, a freelancer who regularly works with Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, told the Committee to Protect Journalists.

That is the narrative much of the Ukrainian public is getting. Following Russia’s invasion, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered a 24-hour, unified “news telethon” in which some of the country’s major broadcasters — two that are public and the rest owned by oligarchs — provide war coverage in alternating, six-hour blocks. Late last year, Zelenskyy also signed legislation giving the government vast powers over the media; the European Federation of Journalists had called an early draft of the bill “worthy of the worst authoritarian regimes.”

Sergatskova said that it has become increasingly difficult for independent publications like hers to cover the war — at a time when Ukrainians are increasingly turning to the news seeking coverage of the war ravaging their country. A survey published earlier this year suggests that trust in media among the public is currently at 57 percent, up from 32 percent before the invasion. “This is good for journalism,” said Sergatskova. “But it’s a big responsibility.”

In a recent op-ed, Sergatskova accused authorities of manipulating an opaque accreditation system to limit coverage of the conflict and of favoring foreign media while overlooking local outlets. (Zelenskyy, for instance, has given plenty of interviews to international news organizations but none to Ukrainian ones, she noted.)

“Ukraine has been fighting two wars for a long time. One is against Russia and Russian colonialism. The second is the war for democracy,” she wrote. “Many people are sabotaging this war for democracy. This is particularly evident in the relationship between the government and the media.”

KHERSON, UKRAINE - NOVEMBER 21: Residents crowd around to take basic medicine supplies at an aid hub on November 21, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine. Ukrainian forces took control of Kherson last week, as well as swaths of its surrounding region, after Russia pulled its forces back to the other side of the Dnipro river. Kherson was the only regional capital to be captured by Russia following its invasion on February 24. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Residents crowd around to take basic medicine supplies at an aid hub after Ukrainian forces regained control of Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 21, 2022.

Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“Transparency Is Messy”

The clash between reporters and Ukrainian authorities burst into open view just as the Ukrainian military embarks on a much-anticipated counteroffensive, a phase of the conflict that some journalists warn risks only being told through official accounts and tightly controlled access. While lobbying for greater military assistance throughout the war, Ukrainian authorities have carefully managed what is disclosed about their performance on the field: for instance, keeping a tight lid on the number of casualties among their forces. Such effort to control the narrative is not comparable to Russia’s full-scale propaganda campaign or its crackdown on journalists, including the March arrest and ongoing detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Many Russian journalists have also been forced to flee the country.

But some journalists warn that the Ukrainian government’s approach to the press is growing increasingly authoritarian. The Ukrainian military doesn’t have a formal embed system — the process by which war journalists cover conflicts by tagging along troops in the field — and most press access consists of short, chaperoned visits to military positions further back than the actual front lines. As a result, stories about the front lines are often told by journalists visiting recently liberated areas or as secondhand accounts relayed by military leadership.

The war has largely been waged using long-range missiles, artillery, and airstrikes, and it’s true that the release of information from the field could pose serious operational risks for the Ukrainian military, some journalists who have reported from the country concede. But seasoned war reporters know how to navigate such complexities, and it would be easier for them to avoid careless exposure of sensitive information if they had better access to the military.

“If the Ukrainians had an embed system, that would actually give them much more supervision over operational security concerns,” Mogelson said. “But they don’t have anything like that. All they have are these press officers who aren’t really press officers, who are there not to facilitate, but to prevent journalists from seeing, writing about, and photographing what’s going on.”

Some exceptions, like Mogelson’s own vivid account of life in the trenches published by the New Yorker in May, were not authorized by officials with the Ministry of Defense, who threatened to revoke the credentials of both Mogelson and Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk after the story was published. (Natalie Raabe, a spokesperson for the New Yorker, wrote in a statement to The Intercept, “Our writer and photographer had permission from the battalion commander; their press credentials remain in place.”)

Those critical of the limitations imposed on journalists argue that they have less to do with operational security than with an effort to control the narrative. Authorities have retaliated against journalists who have offered a more honest, if unflattering, view of the impact of the war on troops, and against at least one military commander who shared a frank but pessimistic view of the war effort, even as some Ukrainian officials have argued that such authentic assessments are needed to pressure allies into providing the aid the country desperately needs.

“Their posture toward the press is very short-sighted, and ultimately, beyond whether or not it’s anti-democratic, I don’t think it’s in their interest,” said Mogelson. “Transparency is messy. Not every story is going to have immediate practical benefits for Ukraine or its armed forces, and that’s what they want. That’s why they’re so obsessed with controlling the narrative. But that control comes at a long-term cost of an erosion of trust in any news about the conflict, both among Ukrainians and, crucially, among the Americans and Europeans on whose continued support and solidarity the war effort depends.”

Journalists and residents stand as smoke rises after an attack by Russian army in Odessa, on April 3, 2022. - Air strikes rocked Ukraine's strategic Black Sea port Odessa early Sunday morning, according to an interior ministry official, after Kyiv had warned that Russia was trying to consolidate its troops in the south. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP) (Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)

Journalists and residents stand as smoke rises after an attack by Russian army in Odessa, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022.

Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Closing In on Journalists

Ukrainian military authorities rushed to accredit thousands of media workers covering the conflict in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. It was an especially dangerous assignment, with 17 journalists killed so far, the vast majority of them in the first few weeks of the war.

Within a couple months, Ukrainian authorities began to pull credentials from reporters whose coverage they didn’t like, including Thomas Gibbons-Neff of the New York Times, who was the lead reporter on an April 2022 story about Ukrainian forces using banned cluster munitions, and New York Times photojournalist Tyler Hicks. Yet the revocation of credentials really ramped up after Ukraine regained control of swaths of Russian-occupied territory late last year.

Many of the journalists whose credentials were revoked more recently had at some point worked in Russian-held territories, sometimes as far back as 2014, when Russia first invaded Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities prohibit travel to occupied territory from Russia, even as it is virtually impossible to get there from Ukraine today.

That appears to have been the justification for authorities to revoke the accreditation of Italian journalists Andrea Sceresini and Alfredo Bosco in February, although officials never provided the two with an explanation. Instead, the freelancers, on assignment for the Italian broadcaster RAI, were traveling from Bakhmut to Kramatorsk when they received an email from the Ministry of Defense, warning them that their credentials had been suspended. The journalists, who had covered the conflict on and off since February 2022 and who had previously reported in Ukraine following the 2014 invasion, later learned from local colleagues that authorities had accused them of being collaborators and propagandists for the Russians. That day, a local journalist they had hired for an assignment canceled last minute, citing the same rumor.

Sceresini said he and Bosco were told by the Ministry of Defense to wait for an interview with the Security Service of Ukraine that never materialized. They barely left their apartment in Kramatorsk, wary of the risks of being labeled collaborators in an active war zone, until Italian Embassy officials told them to move to Kyiv for their safety. There, they contacted colleagues, lawyers, and diplomats to try to understand why their credentials had been suspended; informally, Italian authorities told them that Ukrainian officials had taken issue with trips the two had made to Russian-held territory after 2014. Sceresini reported from both sides of the conflict at the time. In particular, he worked on an investigative documentary about the 2014 killing of an Italian photojournalist by Ukrainian forces, and on a 2015 dispatch that highlighted the divide in communities split by their allegiances to Russia or Ukraine.

“They are running a check on all journalists. And one by one, those who are not perfectly dutiful to the directives and Kyiv’s political line are out.”

“At the time, you could go from Kyiv to Donetsk by bus,” Sceresini noted, but even though he had traveled there legally, Ukrainian authorities banned him from the country for five years in 2015, and he did not return until last year. After his and Bosco’s credentials were revoked this year, they learned of half a dozen Italian journalists and others dealing with revoked or denied credentials.

“They are running a check on all journalists,” Sceresini said. “And one by one, those who are not perfectly dutiful to the directives and Kyiv’s political line are out.”

In February, Ukrainian officials introduced additional restrictions on journalists: a controversial zone system divided the country into green, yellow, and red areas, with the latter accessible to civilians but off limits to journalists. Media advocates condemned the policy, warning that it unduly restricted access to relatively safe areas while also creating confusion about where it was actually dangerous for journalists to work. Two journalists were killed after the zone system was introduced; there had been no journalist deaths for nearly a year prior to that. 

The authorities later quietly revised those restrictions, substituting them with a process that critics say is both arbitrary and confusing. Now regional commanders make decisions about press access on a case-by-case basis. In May, military authorities also canceled all existing credentials and made journalists apply for new ones; several journalists said their new credentials were denied.

“It’s chaos,” said Sergatskova, the editor-in-chief of Zaborona Media, “and it’s getting more complicated.”

HOSTOMEL, UKRAINE - APRIL 08: Journalists take photographs of the destroyed Ukrainian Antonov An-225 "Mriya" cargo aircraft, which was the largest plane in the world among the wreckage of Russian military vehicles at the Hostomel airfield on April 8, 2022 in Hostomel, Ukraine. After more than five weeks of war, Russia appears to have abandoned its goal of encircling the Ukrainian capital. However, Ukraine expects a renewed fight in the east and south. (Photo by Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

Journalists take photographs of the destroyed Ukrainian Antonov An-225 “Mriya” cargo aircraft at the Hostomel airport on April 8, 2022, in Hostomel, Ukraine.

Photo: Alexey Furman/Getty Images

A Narrative War

Until recently, local and foreign journalists alike have been reticent to openly discuss their conflict with authorities, for different reasons. Local journalists — many of whom have joined the military or left the country — have, at times, hesitated to criticize the government, split between allegiance to their profession and to their nation.

Ukrainian journalists “feel that they are part of this, part of the Ukrainian nation struggling for survival,” said Kyrylo Loukerenko, executive director of the independent Hromadske Radio, “so this is a very difficult situation for us.”

He stressed that some journalists are choosing to scale back their criticism rather than responding to top-down pressure to do so, out of concern that any criticism would feed into Russian propaganda efforts.

“It’s more about self-control,” he said. “When you are trying to be critical, people just ask, ‘Are you patriotic?’”

Karol Luczka, Eastern Europe monitoring and advocacy officer with the International Press Institute, said that, in addition to self-censorship stemming from a “moral obligation towards your country,” journalists are also aware that certain topics will earn them additional scrutiny from the authorities. “Ideas like, there’s a civil war, or there are people who are pro-Russian … these are very touchy issues,” he said. “If a reporter either knowingly or unknowingly starts using these kinds of talking points in their report, it’s going to be something that Ukrainian authorities look at.” 

Sergatskova added that for Ukrainian journalists, the choice of stories is also a function of priorities. While she noted that there has been some investigative journalism by local outlets exposing corruption among military leaders, many Ukrainian journalists are consumed by documenting Russian crimes. “This is something that is really important for us,” she said.

The government’s restrictions put foreign journalists in a similarly delicate position, with some publications prioritizing access at the cost of pushing back against the rules imposed by officials. “Some of us are not guiltless in this either. Some are kind of going along with it,” said Mogelson. “There’s a general reluctance to alienate the Ukrainian government because what little access we do have is contingent on staying in its good graces.”

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